Meet Krokodil, the Dangerous New Drug Narcotics Officers Really Hope Doesn’t Make it to Philadelphia

The hellish Russian form of homebrew heroin hasn't yet started rotting off Philly flesh… yet.

Heroin injection

These days, it’ll cost you anywhere from $10 to $50 to get high off of Oxycontin, depending on the size of the pill and the quality of your hookup. Heroin is cheaper, though, at around $100 a bundle—a grouping of 10 to 13 bags, only one of which is required for a dose. It’s also stronger, longer-lasting and readily available here in Philly, making the switch a no-brainer—economically speaking, anyway—for the hopelessly opiate-addicted looking for a consistent high. Never mind, of course, that that high comes via a more dangerous route of administration from a more dangerous chemical.

This is the train of thought that has driven the rise of heroin usage in Philadelphia, and, indeed, nationally. Prices for either drug, however, aren’t going down anytime soon, and with the economy being the way it is, even junkies might need to start tightening their belts to get by. What stands to replace heroin as the cheap opiate of choice, though, is proving itself hellishly unmanageable. Enter krokodil—and at about a tenth the price, too.

“It’s essentially a cheap alternative to heroin,” says Lieutenant Charles Jackson, a veteran of the Philadelphia narcotics unit of more than 15 years. “It can actually eat your flesh.”

News of krokodil first began to pop up in 2011, seeing widespread publication in Vice thanks to the aforementioned “flesh-eating” characteristics of the drug that its users have faced, their skin at the injection site hardening to a scaly patch before rotting and falling off. What amounts to a form of homebrew heroin synthesized out of little more than codeine pills, red phosphorous and paint thinner or gasoline, krokodil has recently begun making headlines in the U.S. after showing up in Illinois, Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma. Users in those states have suffered every horror from open sores to exposed bones and possible deaths, the cheap high lasting only a fraction as long as its more expensive counterpart.

Krokodil may even have made it as far as the east coast, with rumors popping up that it’s been offered on the New York club circuit over the past few weeks. And with users reporting that they believed they were doing heroin while shooting krokodil, the situation has the potential to  get a whole lot worse; Philadelphia, though, has not yet seen any reports of the drug.

“We’ve heard about it through intelligence reports, but we haven’t seen it in the city yet,” Lt. Jackson says. “We just hope and pray it doesn’t catch on here. If it did, though, it would debilitate our healthcare system.”

Project HOME, likewise, hasn’t seen anything regarding the drug in Philly, Sister Marianne Schuster says that her staff “doesn’t know anything about it.” This is at once a great and terrible thing; it suggests that it isn’t here yet, but we ought to be prepared in order to deal with what could become a devastating drug epidemic—especially in the city’s Kensington section, though the ‘burbs are certainly not off limits as opiate abuse rises. But, if the reports from Illinois are to be believed, krokodil has been stateside for at least a year, and as things in the world of drugs go, it’s only a matter of time. It is, in effect, still brand new to the American drug scene.

Krokodil—or “desomorphine,” as it is properly known—is nothing new, pharmacologically speaking, however. First synthesized in the early 1930s, desomorphine was marketed in Europe under the Permonid brandname as a morphine alternative without all the messy nausea, respiratory failure and exceedingly long duration of its deso-less cousin. It never really caught on, though, but not because it was causing patients’ limbs to rot off when they’d go in for a tooth extraction. That particular side effect that we’re seeing these days is more likely due to the DIY nature of the product, with inexperienced (and drug-addicted) chemists pumping out solvent-laden batches of codeine juice just itching to cause phlebitis. That’s also why the life-expectancy for krokodil addicts tops out at about a year or so—heroin addicts, by comparison, last around 15 to 20.

And that, of course, is the crux of the krokodil phenomenon—at least for law enforcement. Imagine plying the law against a bunch of people injecting paint thinner into their arms. At that point, there is literally nothing the police can do to punish offenders other than take the drug away, and that hasn’t historically been possible. Krokodil is, in effect, the most nihilistic drug going, promising nothing more than a dirty trip at the cost of a literal pound of flesh. It makes any other intravenous drug user sound sane by comparison.

So what’s the solution for Philly? Watch and wait, for now. We can’t, however, bank on users being turned off by the fact that this drug is objectively dangerous to use, especially in the face of its obvious economic benefits for opiate addicts. And that’s to say nothing of people accidentally injecting krokodil in place of what was sold as heroin. But, still, it seems the best we can do just yet is, well, hope nothing changes.

“As terrible as it sounds, we’d prefer that people stick to the drugs that are here already,” Lt. Jackson says. “We are not looking forward to enforcing the law against a drug like this.”